I was eating lunch with a couple other bartenders this week, and I told them that I was working on an article about sour mix. Both of them cringed, no doubt with bottles of sickly yellow, highly processed liquid floating through their head. This has been what most of our parents, and many of us, were used to getting when we asked for a drink that required sour mix at a bar. Long Island Ice Teas, margaritas, Lynchburg Lemonades, so many cocktails that were drenched in this stuff. August 25th is National Whiskey Sour Day, and the story of sour mix plays into the story of the cocktail quite nicely. It was not always something people would raise their nose at.
“Sours” are a class of cocktails that was been revived with the craft cocktail movement. The first sours were introduced in a book that is on every serious bartender’s bookshelf, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, by Jerry Thomas. These cocktails started simply, using only a base spirit (like whiskey), lemon, and simple or “gumme” syrup. This basic recipe was so popular it spawned a wide variety of other cocktails, switching ingredients in and out but maintaining the same basic formula. It became the work horse of the late 19th century, spawning classics like the sidecar, margarita and daiquiri are all examples of cocktails that are part of this group. Cocktail historian David Wondrich notes it was one of the most popular cocktail types for over a century, especially the whiskey version, from the 1860’s to the Mad Men era of the 1960’s.
Through the 20th century, two major events happened that sullied the reputation of these fine cocktails. The first was Prohibition, which drove out all of the professional bartenders in the country, and with it all of their knowledge. The second is the development of prepackaged and premade food and drink. We developed into a society that was not going to wait, as well as one that was thrilled with anything new that science could invent. During the 50’s and 60’s, fresh squeezed juices were falling by the wayside in favor of premade juices that would last longer on the shelf. This included cocktail mixers that were easy to pour over a single liquor to make a drink. Who needs all of that tedious squeezing and mixing when you can just pour it out of a bottle? It was faster for bartenders, but it did not taste as good or as fresh. Combine that with a distilling industry that was just getting back into the swing of things, and you had a rough time for cocktails.
At the beginning of the craft cocktail boom, a seed of hatred was planted into cocktails that used premade mixers. This seed grew, with sour mix and all cocktails made with sour mix: the focus of mixologist’s ire. Their simplicity was disregarded for more complex and exotic flavors. But that simplicity is what originally made this cocktail category, and the whiskey sour itself, so popular. You did not need many ingredients to make it, and the ingredients you did need were easy to get. Because many bars and restaurants are not making cocktails with fresh juices, it is far easier to enjoy these cocktail as they were envisioned about 140 years ago: liquor, some lemon juice, and some simple syrup.
When you are making a sour cocktail, you should keep in mind that the lemon and the simple syrup are going to overpower the liquor you choose. I would never recommend using something like Old Dan Tucker or Kentucky Gentleman, but there is no need to break out the Pappy Van Winkle. A nice Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark would do nicely. If you want a little more spice, you can use a rye whiskey as well.
2 oz. bourbon
.75 oz. lemon juice
1 tsp. simple syrup
Pour all of the ingredients into a cocktail shaker and shake it well. Pour into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry. You can make it look fancier by adding a lemon wedge. You can also enjoy it, as many people do, over ice in a non-chilled glass.
For any bartenders reading, or other cocktail enthusiasts, you may ask “Where is the egg white?” Many people will argue that a tablespoon or two of egg white should go into it, which would give the cocktail a smoother, thicker mouthfeel and add some foam when you shook it with the other ingredients. It is also a potential health hazard. It is disputed whether or not that ingredient should be added, but you may if you wish. Jerry Thomas did not add it, so neither will I.
Whiskey sours, and sours in general, are light and refreshing drinks that are about due for a major comeback. Simpler cocktails are making a comeback, and this is one of the simplest there is. Combine that with the bourbon boom that is happening, and soon the whiskey sour could be back among the most popular cocktails in the country. Ready to start the trend?